Lifetime cancer prevalence and life history traits in mammals

Amy M. Boddy, Lisa M. Abegglen, Allan P. Pessier, Athena Aktipis, Joshua D. Schiffman, Carlo C. Maley, Carmel Witte

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

37 Scopus citations


Background: Cancer is a common diagnosis in many mammalian species, yet they vary in their vulnerability to cancer. The factors driving this variation are unknown, but life history theory offers potential explanations to why cancer defense mechanisms are not equal across species. Methodology: Here we report the prevalence of neoplasia and malignancy in 37 mammalian species, representing 11 mammalian orders, using 42 years of well curated necropsy data from the San Diego Zoo and San Diego Zoo Safari Park. We collected data on life history components of these species and tested for associations between life history traits and both neoplasia and malignancy, while controlling for phylogenetic history. Results: These results support Peto's paradox, in that we find no association between lifespan and/or body mass and the prevalence of neoplasia or malignancy. However, a positive relationship exists between litter size and prevalence of malignancy (P ¼ 0.005, Adj. R2 ¼ 0.212), suggesting that a species' life history strategy may influence cancer vulnerabilities. Lastly, we tested for the relationship between placental invasiveness and malignancy. We find no evidence for an association between placental depth and malignancy prevalence (P ¼ 0.618, Adj. R2 ¼ 0.068). Conclusions: Life history theory offers a powerful framework to understand variation in cancer defenses across the tree of life. These findings provide insight into the relationship between life history traits and cancer vulnerabilities, which suggest a trade-off between reproduction and cancer defenses. Lay summary: Why are some mammals more vulnerable to cancer than others? We test whether life history trade-offs may explain this variation in cancer risk. Bigger, longer-lived animals do not develop more cancer compared to smaller, shorter-lived animals. However, we find a positive association between litter size and cancer prevalence in mammals.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)187-195
Number of pages9
JournalEvolution, Medicine and Public Health
Issue number1
StatePublished - 2020


  • Cancer
  • Comparative oncology
  • Life history theory
  • Mammals
  • Peto's Paradox

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Medicine (miscellaneous)
  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Health, Toxicology and Mutagenesis


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